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Why Do Good People Suffer? A Blast from the Past

I was looking around for an interesting post from a few years ago, and I found this one, from March 2013, which, as it turns out, is relevant to what I am going to want to say in the thread I’ve just started on views of the afterlife that developed in ancient Israel (leading up to the Christian views that eventually came to be so dominant throughout the West.).    The post provides, in a nutshell, three major views about why there is suffering.  Why is that relevant?  One of my theses I have going into my research for my next book is that views of the afterlife developed originally as a way to explain why there are such inequities in the present life.  Here’s the post:


I’m in New York City for a few days. Last night I gave a lecture at NYU; they had asked that I talk about “God, The Bible, and the Problem of Suffering.” That’s the topic of my book God’s Problem, and so I spun off a talk from there. Part of the point of the book is that the Bible has a large number of views about why people – especially the people of God – suffer, many of these views are at odds with one another, and most of them are different from what people, even highly religious people, even highly religious people who think they based their views on the Bible, tend to think.

The lecture was only to be 50 minutes so I couldn’t spend much time on this that or the other view, and in fact could not deal with most of the biblical perspectives. I didn’t talk about Job, for example (which, in the judgment of most biblical scholars, is made up of the work of two different authors who in fact have different views of suffering) or with lots of other things. Instead I chose the one view of suffering that I think is widely held by many of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets, and which I therefore call the prophetic view, and the one view that I think is most widely held by the authors of the New Testament, which I call the apocalyptic view, and finally the one view that I find most sensible personally but which is not widely shared by biblical authors, the view of the book of Ecclesiastes.

In a nutshell, the prophetic view is that the reason the people of God suffer (military defeat; political, economic, social nightmares; natural disasters) is because they have sinned against God and are continuing to avoid following his law and his ways, and so God is punishing them for it as a way of getting them to wake up, take notice, and return to his ways.. As an example I read selections from Amos chs. 1-5.

The apocalyptic view, in my opinion, was a later reaction to this prophetic view. In the apocalyptic way of understanding things, it is not God who is causing his people to suffer, but forces aligned against God and his people, evil cosmic powers that have this world in their grip and that are making the lives of the righteous miserable as a result. But according to this view, God is soon to intervene in history to over throw the forces of evil and set up his good kingdom. So people need to hold on to their faith and remain true to God, so that they will be rewarded when history comes to a crashing halt in the very near future. I think this was the view of Jesus and Paul and others among the early Christians.

I personally find the first, prophetic, view to be rather unhelpful. (The reason you are suffering is because God is punishing you for your sin.) The second was one I used to subscribe to as a Christian, but eventually I came to think of it as too thoroughly rooted in a an eschatological hope that I thought, at the end of the day, was simply unrealistic and untrue. I’m afraid I no longer think that God is going to make right all that is wrong.

The view of Ecclesiastes is more in tune with how I look at the world today. A key term in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word “HEVEL,” which sometimes gets translated (unhelpfully) as “vanity,” or “futility.” HEVEL is a term that refers to something that is transient and fleeting; it is the mist that appears above the ground early in the morning that then is burned off. It’s here for a little bit, and then is gone. Life, for Ecclesiastes, is like that. Everything is fleeting and impermanent. It comes, it goes, it disappears; then it comes again, and goes, and disappears. HEVEL of HEVEL, all is HEVEL, begins the book.

And that includes us. We are here for a little while and then we are gone. So what’s the point? You make a lot of money and then you die, and, well, what good does your money do you? You become well known and influential, you have a fantastic career, you are admired by all – and then you die. Your children will remember you. But your grandchildren, not so much. And your great-grandchildren, forget about it. In 100 years, probably no one will even think of you any more than you think of your ancestors who died 100 years ago. And that’s only 100 years. What about 200 years? Or 1000 years? Or 10,000 years? Or … pick your number of years. And so what’s the point?

For Ecclesiastes, the point is that you should enjoy life as much as you can as long as you can, since you won’t be here long. I resonate with that. And I do not find it at all depressing. On the contrary, I find it completely liberating. We should live for now. This is not a dry run for something else or a dress rehearsal for the real thing to come. This is IT. And we should enjoy it fully.

I went on to say that in my opinion it is not possible to enjoy life fully if we are not ourselves helping others who are in need so that they *too* can enjoy life fully. During the question and answer period, a number of people found that hard to believe; these people appeared to think that if life is short and then it’s over with, that should necessarily lead to a kind of rank hedonism. I don’t think so. I *absolutely* don’t think so. I think a life helping others is part of what it means to life live to its fullest.

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Why I Am Not A Christian
Thinking about Hell



  1. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

    The prophetic worldview mentioned here is specifically Jewish, and is a natural and logical derivative of the covenantal worldview. That is, that of the Mosaic Covenant. It’s very explicit in the covenant. Obey Torah and you will be blessed. Disobey Torah and you will be punished. But that covenant was clearly restricted to Israel and the God of Israel (Yahweh / Elohim). It wasn’t relevant to anyone else. If Israel is suffering, then Israel must have disobeyed Torah.

    Some people were smart enough and objective enough to notice that sometimes, even when Israel is obeying, Israel is still suffering. Thus the apocalyptic world view, with the (possibly Persian?) idea of the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. They didn’t take the other intellectual path of wholesale rejection of the covenantal worldview. That would have ended Judaism.

  2. Avatar
    Lms728  March 7, 2017

    I have often wondered why or/and how, according to apocalyptic thinking, God lost his control over the world? How/when did the cosmic forces of Evil/Sin/Death come to “have this world in their grip”? I know Paul blames Adam and 1 Timothy blames Eve, but neither goes far enough? How could, would apocalypticists say, the sin of one man/woman cause Evil to wrest control of the world from God? Has anyone worked on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2017

      Most apocalypticists thought *either* that there was cosmic disaster (fall of the angels) *or* a human one (fall of Adam). But most would have seen either scenario as mysterious and hard to fathom.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      It’s not that God lost control. He still retained ultimate control. But they gained a ‘better’ understanding of how the supernatural realm worked. I can’t help but think that influences from Eastern religions and Plato were incorporated somewhere along the line.

      Jews didn’t have the idea of original sin. Read carefully and without prejudice Genesis 3. Note the consequences without applying Christian redefinitions of the words. Seed means descendants, procreation. It explains why life is tough, why childbirth is painful, and why women (or people) don’t like snakes. It also justifies male domination of women.

      I’m not convinced that even Paul had the idea of original sin. I think he was just drawing an analogy. Humans lost immortality because Adam and/or Eve sinned. Humans gained resurrection because of Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    Lms728  March 7, 2017

    Can you recommend a source or two I might consult?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2017

      Off hand I’m not sure where you would find the best discussion of this. I would suggest looking at the books on apocalypticism by John Collins for starters.

  4. Avatar
    dankoh  March 12, 2017

    I find the earlier prophets saw disasters (such as the fall of the Biblical kingdoms) as meaning communal responsibility; punishment for sin was not individual but collective (the individual would be punished by the king, not by God). After 586 BCE, we see the prophets beginning to shift to God punishing individuals for sins (perhaps there was no longer a secular authority to do so), though the idea of community responsibility never went away.

    Christianity, on the other hand, focused on the individual. And since many individuals were clearly sinning and getting away with it, they came up with punishment in the afterlife. (I am simplifying a GREAT deal here.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 13, 2017

      Ezekiel too, e.g., focused on the individual.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 13, 2017

      The Mosaic Covenant was a corporate covenant, not an individual covenant. If Israel obeys, Israel is blessed. If Israel disobeys, Israel suffers. That’s how they viewed the relationship with their god.

      Torah included required punishments for wayward individuals. Of course, the idea, promulgated by the priests, was that if Israel didn’t punish idolaters, Sabbath-breakers, and other criminals, then God would punish Israel.

  5. Avatar
    stevenpounders  March 14, 2017

    I completely understand what you mean when you say “I think a life helping others is part of what it means to live life to its fullest.”

    And I’m pretty sure that people who think that “if life is short and then it’s over with, that should necessarily lead to a kind of rank hedonism”, are actually people who believe in an afterlife, and refuse to truly consider the alternative.

    Anyone who thinks about it should realize that the greatest joys life affords come from our relationships with each other. Real happiness comes from our experience of love and companionship with family, friends, lovers, and even the occasional like-minded but unfamiliar crowd. And as instant communication makes the world smaller and smaller, we find ourselves intimately and even lovingly concerned about the lives of people on the opposite side of the planet. Pleasures that can be bought are fleeting and unfulfilling by comparison.

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